20 Apr The Cheat River – then and now
The magnificent Cheat River flows from five major tributaries (Black Fork, Dry Fork, Glady Fork, Laurel Fork, and Shavers Fork) which originate in the rugged Monongahela National Forest and join to form the main river stem near Parsons, West Virginia. From Parsons, the scenic Cheat flows nearly 162 miles past the historic river towns of St. George, Rowlesburg and Albright before reaching Cheat Lake and discharging into the Monongahela River at Point Marion in Pennsylvania. The entire watershed spans an impressive 1422 square miles, and the river is one of the longest un-dammed waterways in the eastern United States.
The Cheat Canyon has long been rich with recreation opportunities – from trout fishing to whitewater kayaking. But in the 1970s, whitewater paddlers on the Cheat River noticed the water quality degrading. Acid mine drainage (AMD) was discharging from abandoned mine lands and active coal mines into the river. Every year, more rocks in the river were stained bright orange. People started complaining of stinging eyes and nosebleeds after having spending time in the Cheat’s waters. (Right now over 7500 miles of streams in Appalachia are polluted by AMD from abandoned mine lands.)
In the spring of 1994, polluted water from an illegally-sealed major underground coal mine blew out the hillside and poured into Muddy Creek. The huge release of mine water entered the main stem of the Cheat River just upstream of the Cheat Canyon. The the river ran orange for miles. The resulting discharge impacted not only the Cheat Canyon, but also lowered the pH in Cheat Lake to 4.5, killing fish as far away as 16 miles downstream. A second blowout in 1995 further made the problem worse. American Rivers, Inc., a national river conservation organization, named the Cheat as one of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers. After the mine blowouts, the Cheat’s whitewater industry suffered over a 50% drop in business, while whitewater participation increased nationally by 33% during the same time period.
The mine blowouts forced the issue into the public eye. Concerned citizens and stakeholders organized Friends of the Cheat (FOC) to begin to address the problems resulting from over a century of coal mining. FOC’s goals were to restore, preserve and promote the natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed, and to mobilize an effort by government, private industry, landowners and grassroots organizations to deal with the serious problems due to acid mine drainage in the watershed.
This effort led to the formation of the River of Promise (ROP) task force in May 1995. Over 20 groups have signed onto the “River of Promise: A Shared Commitment for the Restoration of the Cheat River, West Virginia.” The first signatories were Friends of the Cheat, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Anker Energy, West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, and the Department of Interior Office of Surface Mining. By 1996, signatories included more state and federal agencies, academia, conservation groups, and local governments. Meeting quarterly and chaired by Friends of the Cheat, the ROP task force coordinates and initiates projects throughout the watershed. Millions of dollars in projects have been implemented since 1995, including water monitoring programs, water quality assessments, and reclamation projects.
Now the Cheat is off the list of endangered rivers, whitewater rafting trips are running, and fish are making a comeback. Last week, Wilderness Voyageurs guides observed stoneflies on the Cheat. Stoneflies are a species of insect that indicates a healthy marine ecosystem.
FOC has hosted the Cheat River Festival by the river banks in Albright, West Virginia every May since 1995. Bands from all over Appalachia play live music, while Fest goers dance, browse the Art Market, learn about other non-profit organizations that share the FOC vision, place bids at the silent auction, eat great festival food, and support the FOC’s quest to make a clean, healthy watershed. For athletes, there’s a 5K foot race and a Down River Race through the Cheat Canyon. This year the festival is on May 5 and 6. Come show your love for the Cheat!
Can’t make it to the festival? You can donate to Friends of the Cheat here.